Discipleship according to the Beloved Disciple

Today we wrap up our look at the theme of discipleship in the Gospel of John. The final person I wish for us to consider is John, the beloved disciple and author of the Fourth Gospel. John never identifies himself by name in the book. However, many scholars believe the occurrences of the “beloved disciple” are John’s way of referring to himself. This title (or some variation) is found in John 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; and 21:7, 20. The beloved disciple shows up at the last supper (13:23), is found with some of the Twelve and is very likely one of them (21:2), and is a close associate of Peter (13:23–24; 20:2–10; 21:7). All three of these can be said of John the apostle. These three pieces of evidence, along with the testimony of church history (see Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.1.2; Eusebius, Church History, 6.14.7) point to John the son of Zebedee as the beloved disciple. So what might we learn about discipleship from John’s example? Although he occurs only briefly, I believe there are several things we may learn about discipleship from the beloved disciple.

We first encounter the beloved disciple (hereafter called BD) on the night the Lord was to be betrayed. The BD is found next to Jesus at their final meal together reclining next to him (13:23). It was customary for first century Jews to recline on their side as they ate a meal, especially the Passover. This is the reason for the BD’s head resting against Jesus when he asks him who the betrayer will be (13:25). But it may also suggest an intimate relationship with Jesus, as some scholars suggests (Culpepper, Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel, 121; Palatty, “Discipleship in the Fourth Gospel,” 297). Perhaps even more interesting is the language used to describe the closeness of the BD to Jesus, which mirrors the relationship Jesus shared with his Father in 1:18. Just as Jesus is “in the bosom of the Father,” so also is the BD “on Jesus’ bosom” (NASB). Jesus’ nearness and intimacy with the Father makes him eminently qualified to make him known. It would appear, in similar fashion, the nearness of the BD enables him to make Jesus known, which he does through the record of the Gospel according to 20:30–31.

The second occurrence of the BD is at Jesus’ trial and crucifixion (19:15–16, 26). While the rest of the disciples either flee for their lives, or in the case of Peter deny Jesus three times, the BD does neither of these things. He remains near Jesus throughout the entire ordeal. He uses his personal contacts to remain near his teacher as Jesus is questioned before the high priest (19:15–16). Although Peter is present also, he falters in his faithfulness to follow Christ and denies even knowing him. However, the BD remains even under the treats of arrest and death, which the disciples of Jesus certainly entertained (cf. 20:19, 26). Later one finds the BD at the foot of the cross among several of the women who were prominent in Jesus’ ministry. It is the BD to whom Jesus entrusts the care of his own mother (19:26). His fidelity to Jesus is one possible reason for this responsibility.

The next time we see the BD is at the empty tomb (20:2). Both he and Peter receive word from Mary Magdalene that the stone had been moved from the entrance of the tomb (20:1). As the younger of the two, the BD arrived before Peter. Peter, however, entered the tomb first, followed by the BD (20:6, 8). The result of this experience was belief that Jesus had been raised from the dead (20:8). What is interesting is that no mention is made of Peter’s belief in Jesus’ resurrection at this moment. Only the BD is said to believe when provided with the initial evidence of Jesus’ resurrection.

The final appearance of the BD is in the last chapter of the Gospel (21:7, 20). The BD is the first to recognize Jesus on the shore of the Sea of Galilee (21:7, cf. 21:12). Lastly, we see the BD doing what all true disciples of Jesus do, that is following him (21:20). Remember, the verb “I follow” (akoloutheō) is often synonymous with discipleship in John’s Gospel.

When we look at the brief pictures of the BD it is easy to see why so many scholars identify him as the ideal disciple, the model disciple to be followed, or the paradigm of discipleship (Culpepper, Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel, 121; Hulitt, “‘Come and See’: Disciples and Discipleship in the Fourth Gospel,” 293; Palatty, “Discipleship in the Fourth Gospel,” 296; Siker-Gieseler, “Disciples and Discipleship in the Fourth Gospel: A Canonical Approach,” 221–222). So then, what might we learn about following Jesus from the BD? First, we find that he is close to Christ. Similarly, we see someone who is absolutely faithful the Jesus Christ. He does not leave Jesus’ side even when it takes him to difficult places. In both instances one might say the BD abides with Christ. Second, he is clearly a witness to Jesus. The entire Gospel, which he penned, is written to tell other people about Jesus so that they too might believe he is the Son of God and have life in his name (20:31). Third, he believes in Jesus, particular what Jesus said about his resurrection (20:8). The resurrection is foundational for Christians so much so that our faith is worthless if Jesus did not raise from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:14). Finally, the BD is a follower of Christ. This is clear from his first to final appearance in the Fourth Gospel. He is unashamedly a disciple of Jesus.

What follows is a final paradigm of discipleship according to the portraits of discipleship we have been studying in the Fourth Gospel. Number eleven has been added from John 9, healing the man born blind:

Paradigm of Discipleship

  1. Follow Jesus
  2. Abide with Jesus
  3. Bear witness to Jesus
  4. Called of God
  5. Believe in Jesus/Place faith in Jesus
  6. Spiritual growth
  7. Bear much fruit
  8. Experience joy
  9. Hear Jesus’ words
  10. Not bound by gender or ethnicity
  11. Consequences of following Jesus

One thing that has gone without saying during this discussion is the community aspect of discipleship. Jesus’ followers were not just individuals scattered here and there, but a group of people brought together with a common faith and mission. It is easy in our culture to become more and more isolated from one another, even while we experience the connectedness of social networking. What is meant to bring us together can be the very thing that drives us apart. We need each other. Discipleship does not occur in a vacuum. It is necessary for God’s people to come together, as Christ’s body, to strengthen and equip one another to go back out into the world to be his disciples.

I hope that through this look at discipleship according to selected characters in John’s Gospel you have found yourself inspired to live more consistently and fully for Christ. If that is the result, then my goal in taking on this brief study has been successful.

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